Of all the panels in the Maryland General Assembly, none more vividly reflects the conflicting political, economic and personal forces that shape the actions of part-time legislators than the House Committee on Economic Matters.
First, there is the legislation that comes before it. Almost every bill that affects banks, mortgage companies, insurance corporations, chain stores, liquor industry and labor unions starts here. In one week, this committee can kill or give life to measures that mean millions of dollars to businesses and the public.
Then there is the composition of the committee. Twenty-three part-time delegates are members, and more than half make a living in the industries that the committee regulates. Three own liquor stores, three are insurance brokers, three are real estate agents, three are small businessmen and one is the leader of a county teachers union.
Finally, and perhaps inevitably, there are the lobbyists. To them, the Committee on Economic Matters is a special province. When the committee gathers in its hearing room at 1 every weekday afternoon, the largest swarm of lobbyists in Annapolis is always there. They sit in a special section on the right side of the chamber, looking on with the dignity of appeals court judges as the panel discusses arcane bills that only the lobbyists watch carefully despite their great consumer impact.
The lobbyists are always available for the delegates on this committee -- as friends in the morning, consultants in the afternoon, dinner partners and hosts at night. Isaiah Dixon rarely gets through a scrambled egg breakfast at the Annapolis Hilton without some lobbyist hovering by his table with the question: "Hey, Ike, how you going on this one?"
When Frank Komenda finishes a prime rib dinner at Fran O'Brien's, a popular restaurant with politicians, he often finds a lobbyist near the cash register offering to pay the bill.
"Our committee is just a magnet for lobbyists," said Del. Fred Rummage (D-Prince George's), the committee chairman. "We see more of them, more often, than any other committee, by far."
These three factors -- the legislation, the part-time delegates with a professional stake in that legislation and the intense lobbying from powerful business interests -- are keys to understanding why and how the House Committee on Economic Matters operates. It is, by its nature, a potentially dangerous mix, as House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin acknowledges.
"It's the hardest committee in the House," said Cardin, a reform-minded leader from Baltimore who carefully handpicked each member of the committee, mindful that the committee's actions this year could show just how far removed Maryland is from its corruption-ridden past.
"You're always on your toes. You don't want to appear to favor one of the special interests over another," Cardin added.
No other piece of legislation better illustrates those pressures in this session than the so-called "beer and wine bill" -- a measure that would simply give retail food and drug chain stores the right to apply for as many licenses to sell beer and wine as they like.
Although the bill was introduced just a few days ago, it already has become the special interest cause of the year, igniting a fierce lobbying war between two of Maryland's economic giants -- the food and drug industry in one corner and the liquor business in the other.
As the committee that will first consider the controversial measure, House Economic Matters is the chief battleground for the rival lobbyists. Even though the bill's hearing is three weeks away, committee members are constantly reminded of the issue at Annapolis restaurants, social gatherings and State House offices.
"Every day they're on you, trying to get the feel of which way you're going," explained Dixon, a Democrat from Baltimore. "This is a big one."
When they are not soliciting support from committee members, the lobbyists try to tilt the balance in their favor by spreading rumors. Each side has accused the other of compiling million dollar war chests or recruting former political heavy-weights, including former Gov. Marvin Mandel, to join the fray.
The bill's proponents -- including such financial powers as Giant Foods, Dart Drugs and 7-Eleven stores -- formed the Committee for Effective Marketing Action and hired as their lobbyist Maurice R. Wyatt who until a few months ago specialized in counting votes as patronage chief and legislative liaison first for Mandel and then for Acting Gov. Blair Lee III.
Wyatt, who parceled out enough patronage over the years to make him a popular man here, spends his days visiting committee members in their State House offices and roaming the halls outside the committee room, waiting to corner the legislators as they come out.
At night, he plays a more social role, squiring around lawmakers at a buffet and open bar affair hosted by the Maryland Food Dealers annual "seafood fest" last Wednesday, for example. The next day, he had another crack at committee members invited to an exclusive gathering at a South River restaurant put on by an association of finance companies.
"Hey, Morsberger," he joked at the Thursday affair, shouting across the room at a delegate who opposes the beer and wine bill. "I've got commitments from these guys (a group of committee members at his table). You better start working."
By his own count, Wyatt has mustered the support of no more than half the committee. It is a difficult task, he is learning, to challenge an industry, like the liquor business, that is such a vital part of Maryland's political fabric.
The tavern and package goods store is the center of politics in many of the working class districts of the state, a place where campaign posters are hung and political strategies hatched. Liquor store owners and their organizations traditionally are among the most generous campaign contributors.
Two committee members from Prince George's County who oppose the wine and beer bill are easily reminded of the political strength of neighborhood liquor stores. Del. Francis J. Santangelo Sr. said he can count 11 liquor outlets within a mile radius of his Landover home. The most powerful politician in Del. Nathaniel Exum's district -- Sen Tommie Broadwater -- owns a bar and carryout shop in Fairmount Heights.
In Baltimore, black politics is closely connected to the liquor business. William L. (Little Willie) Adams, a prominent political boss, began in the retail liquor business.
"There's no point in anybody kidding ourselves," said Del. Frank M. Conaway, a committee member, who ran with Adams' help in the last election. "Mr. Adams is a highly influential man and he's vehemently opposed to it (the bill). If he asks me to be against it, I'd be inclined to be with him."
The liquor store owners so powerful in their neighborhoods have banded together to fight the beer and wine bill and hired their own lobbyist, Reuben Shiling. The organization, called Committee Against Multiple Licenses and Monopolies, has sent letters to 7,000 owners in Maryland seeking financial support for the lobbying efforts and suggesting that they try to use their influence with their representatives.
"This is one of the last groups of independent retailers trying not to be swept up by the chains," said Shiling. "Their ability to stay in business is being threatened, just like the Ma and Pa grocery store."
An organization of black liquor store licensees has reacted strongly to the threat, distributing a letter to its members comparing the beer and wine bill to Nazi gas chambers. "'Never again' is a motto that comes from a life or death situation and we of the (organization) and all retail alcohol dealers are locked into a life or death crisis," declared a letter attributed to the Maryland United Licencees Beverage Association.
For some members of the committee, the bill has a direct financial impact. Consider, for example, the case of Del. Louis Morsberger (D-Baltimore County), who spends many nights in Annapolis dancing at Fran O'Brien's and most days defending what he calls "the cause of the little guy."
This year, according to Morsberger, the little guys are the tavern owners. "They're the last vestige of the free enterprise system," he said. "And this damn liquor and wine bill would threaten their very existence."
Morsberger knows of what he speaks. He owns a tavern, Morsberger's Bar on Frederick Avenue in Catonsville.
"No," said Morsberger when asked if he felt there was a conflict. "If the chairmen ask me not to vote I'd file a disclosure sheet and tell them I've been a member of the General Assembly for four years and have never been impartial -- I mean partial -- to a special interest group. I'm gonna vote on this."
Morsberger has already done more than prepare to vote on the measure. Del. John Quade and other members of the committee said that he has served as a main spokesman for the bill's opponents within the committee.